It’s somewhat fitting that the loneliest position in football is identified with the number one.
The famed Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in his celebrated work Football in Sun and Shadow, described the goalkeeper’s predicament by describing them as “alone, condemned to watch the game from afar.”
One of the biggest issues goalkeepers face is this: how do you analyse how great they are? Do you judge keepers on their passing? Their saves? Statistical analysis can struggle to provide clarity, as “clean sheets” reflect the overall quality of the defence as much as the keeper themselves; and simply saving shots can be misleading, as ‘keepers in bad teams are often peppered with shots so have more chances to make saves than those in good teams.
So how do you judge a goalkeeper? Well, Watford’s number one Ben Foster, a man who has enjoyed a long and illustrious career at both the elite, mid-table and lower leagues, seemed like a pretty good person to ask.
“I think the best way to judge a goalkeeper is to watch all of the goals that he concedes and make a balanced opinion of whether that goalkeeper could do much about the goals or not,” he told Squawka.
“A goalkeeper that exudes confidence and calmness is a massive attribute too as it can have a huge positive effect on the other players on the team.”
In the Premier League, the two goalkeepers who’d have the shortest showreel in terms of goals conceded belong to the two teams at the top of the table, Manchester City and Liverpool
Changing of the guard?
The rise to prominence of Ederson and Alisson is symbolic.
The two are part of the vanguard for this new generation of goalkeepers who are expected to be good with their feet. This is a change that can be traced back to former Ajax and Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff.
It had always bothered Cruyff that keepers just stopped shots. It was a waste of a player, he thought. The legendary number 14 wanted a keeper who had ball skills so that his sides would always have 11 players capable of participating in build-up play.
Cruyff installed this belief at his two clubs, and for a time they were outliers, weirdos who believed in passing goalkeepers. But nothing stands still in football. If you don’t adapt or continually improve then you’ll be left in the dust. So, of course, the idea of the sweeper-keeper was proliferated throughout Europe (by Pep Guardiola in particular).
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Two of the earliest icons of the position’s transformation were Victor Valdés and Manuel Neuer. The big German has fallen off and is no longer an automatic mention among the world’s finest, while Valdés’ contributions have long since been forgotten as the likes of Alisson, Ederson and Barcelona’s Marc-André Ter Stegen set new standards in goalkeeping excellence.
Keepers like Jan Oblak, someone who isn’t particularly good with his feet and simply excels at traditional goalkeeping skills, are now the outlier rather than the norm. The passing goalkeepers now set the standard for the world game and that intention should filter down all the way to grassroots levels.
There’s been a massive paradigm shift in goalkeeping, as Foster says: “[Ederson and Alisson] have raised the bar in what people now expect from the goalkeeper,” and you only have to look at their numbers in the Premier League to see this.
In the English top flight this season, only two goalkeepers recorded a passing accuracy of over 80% while simultaneously maintaining an above-70% save percentage. By now, you probably have a good idea of those two goalkeepers might be. But to confirm: Alisson and Ederson.
Add that to the fact that they both clocked up 20+ clean sheets between them and you have two totemic goalkeepers who sit atop the Premier League, setting new standards but also inspiring others to reach their level.
It’s no coincidence that Chelsea felt comfortable breaking the world-record fee for a goalkeeper (set by Alisson) in order to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga. They knew which way things were going and did what they had to in order to keep up. David De Gea and Hugo Lloris, once praised for being good with their feet, now look above average at best in the face of this new Brazilian brilliance.
How do Ederson and Alisson compare?
This leads us to the big question: who is superior? Alisson or Ederson? One has two titles, sure, but as goalkeepers who’s better? “Picking between Alisson and Ederson is like picking between Coke and Pepsi!,” says Foster.
Beyond the taste test, the numbers shed some light. In the Premier League, Alisson has completed more passes (864) than any other goalkeeper (Ederson comes fourth with 760) but only one starting shot-stopper has lost possession fewer times than Ederson’s 167 (Alisson has turned it over 216 times, putting him third).
Ederson is definitely safer, having made zero errors leading to goals (and only two that led to shots). Meanwhile, Alisson has six errors leading to shots, three of which ended up as goals. Neither are league-highs, but he places top five for both metrics.
And while Ederson is safer for his team in this sense, he is more dangerous for the opposition.
He is one of just five goalkeepers (along with Iago Herrerin, Jonas Lossl, Oliver Baumann and Alexander Schwolow) to have registered an assist in Europe’s top five leagues this season. But unlike all of them, his side won their domestic title. Also unlike them – in fact, unlike anyone – Ederson also has an assist in the Champions League.
As a final point, Alisson is probably a bit more solid as a shot-stopper. His save percentage in the Premier League is a whopping 77.08% – the best in the division of any regular starter – whereas Ederson’s is a “measly” 71.6% (fourth among all ‘keepers).
Alisson is more consistent, Ederson more potent, both are absolutely brilliant. It’s hard to settle this debate, as Ben Foster said: “They’re both amazing and [there is] very little difference between the two! [They are] probably the two best goalkeepers in the world right now.”